On the Ground at the Anti-WTO protests in Seattle

Published in The Martlet | December 1999 | Circulation: 17,000


“Where are you?!” John shouted into the two-way radio.

His call went unheard — lost amid the noisy chanting and chaos of the crowd. Our small, five-person “affinity group,” the basic unit of social activism, was only one insignificant unit of a crowd of at least 40,000 anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) marchers.

John, our affinity group leader, was desperately trying to find the rest of the protesters from our university, who we had come down to Seattle with.

The march’s route was being changed, and the mob of protesters was being diverted left down 4th Avenue, away from what we were beginning to realize was absolute chaos two blocks ahead at Pike Street.

Acrid tear-gas fumes were starting to seep into the massive crowd, although some of the marchers were unaware of what was going on ahead. The five of us, pushed up against a line of official ‘March Marshalls’ in bright yellow poncho raincoats and fluorescent orange baseball caps, were being ordered to follow the march left.

“I was pretty sure that some of the University of Victoria people had ignored the marshalls and were up at the police lines,” John later recalled. “We needed to find whoever we could and decide whether to go up there or not.” If the whole group got split up, our six buses might have been missing a lot of people on the journey back to Victoria.

Our affinity group decided, collectively, to move across the flow of protesters, to the relatively calm steps of Seattle’s Best Coffee. From there, we could discuss plans of action and try to find the other affinity groups.

It is amazing what wondrous forces of organization can be at work in such chaos. From this first collective decision, albeit a minor one, things began to come together.

“There was so much shouting and chanting, we could hardly hear each other,” John recalled. “But the affinity group leaders had the radios, and we also had a really good affinity group system and a buddy system.”

The affinity group system is based on the idea of decentralized action. Larger groups, like ours from the University of Victoria, are divided into smaller groups of between five and twenty people, which are meant to stick together during the protest and support each other (especially if any members are arrested).

“We had a last-minute meeting of all students going down to Seattle a few days before actually going down,” said Mary, who was one of the main organizers behind the trip, and basically started the Anti-WTO coalition at UVic, attracting members and helping to organize a WTO awareness day about a month before.

“The main question we asked everyone was: What is your police comfort level?” she explained. “It wouldn’t work to put a radical activist who doesn’t care if they’re arrested, or maybe even brutalized, by police, with someone who really isn’t comfortable with that at all,” she said. Indeed, there was a vast range of comfort levels and views among the 250 UVic students who went down. Some were planning on being at the ‘front lines,’ confronting police, while others never even saw a whiff of tear gas.

Mary said she was pleased to see such a variety of people:

“Our planning meetings started out pretty small, maybe ten people at the first meeting. But in a few weeks we had signed up lots of people, everyone from International Socialists to the Free Tibet group to environmentalists,” she said. “It was nice to see the energy.”

The group met every Friday afternoon for over a month before the Seattle protests, and planned every detail of getting to Seattle, setting up contact lists, and raising awareness on campus and in Victoria.

I was surprised at almost every point of the trip by the organization of every detail. Even though I was fairly involved in the planning, I had no idea that we had sent detailed lists of names and nationalities of students a week before to US customs, or that we had a rented conference room on the ferry and two-way radios.

The radios worked out well. They not only made us look and feel ‘official’ — perhaps like revolutionary communications officers — but they allowed us to find most of the other affinity groups in the end.

As the five of us stood in bewilderment on the steps of Seattle’s Best Coffee, a voice came clearly through the radio.

“Steve here. Is anyone there?” Steve was another affinity group leader, and also one of the trip’s organizers. We finally found his affinity group and a few others in front of a massive, green GREENPEACE condom (one of the more colourful displays in the parade).

After eventually getting most of the large group together, the rest of the story — the most exciting part — has been retold in the news many times since the event (albeit with sensational overemphasis on property damage); we decided to venture past the yellow-ponchoed and fluorescent-orange-hatted March Marshalls, and ended up getting bombarded with tear-gas and concussion grenades (which don’t hurt but make a huge explosion above you). Greenpeace got tear-gased alongside us.

But I didn’t want this story to be about our cause, or about police brutality, or about riots. That’s all in the newspaper coverage and alternative media. What I wanted it to be about was something that didn’t get coverage.

Many of us came out of the Seattle war zone with feelings that one protester described as “totally overwhelming.” Amid the fear, horror, sadness and shock of feeling like we had been attacked by the police — which left me at the end in tears –was a deeper feeling of unity, a sense that we were all as one. And what the newspapers didn’t see was the immense energy-driven work that went into getting us all down there and back again safely.

Many of us couldn’t think of much to say on the journey back to Victoria.

Words were sparse, perhaps because we were still in shock, or maybe because we were just plain tired from getting up at 4 a.m. that morning.

Nevertheless, Steve the affinity group leader summed up everything we achieved in four words: “It was absolutely immaculate.”

And that’s all he needed to say.

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